Reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is like entering a complex and polyvalent immersive art exhibit. It is fiction but written as though it is nonfiction, beginning with an editor’s note explaining the premise. But this editor is also fictional and the editor’s note is part of the novel. Even though I knew it was a novel, this confused me and I suppose it was meant to do so.
Much of the book is confusing and causes the reader to continually wonder if it is true or not, especially since much of the text is footnoted. The text is footnoted by the fictional editor who is compelled to explain references made by the main character, Harriet Burden, in a series of notebooks she left behind after her death.
The whole disorienting premise becomes even more disorienting when the editor also includes letters sent to her by people who knew the fictional main character, all fictional as well, who are writing their memories of her for the editor. There are also transcribed interviews that the editor conducts after Burden’s death with people she knew in various capacities throughout her life: children, friends, work acquaintances and tenants.
Most of the information in the footnotes, however, is NOT fiction since they are the fictional editor’s notes educating the reader on the subjects and people referred to in the text who are often actual women writers and artists from history, as well as philosophers from history and refer to actual historical events.
The fictional main character is obsessed with overlooked women artists and writers through time and writes about them (Nasty Women Writers can understand and shares this obsession) in her notebooks with details as though they are her intimate friends. As a reader, we guess that the actual author of the novel is equally obsessed. We would be accurate in that assumption. Actual author Siri Hustvedt has, in fact, also written many nonfiction articles about art, art history, philosophy and overlooked women artists and writers.
One can acquire Hustvedt’s nonfiction books to learn more about her interests and the artists her character in The Blazing World is interested in. By doing this, one would acquire a fairly good lesson in the history of art and different schools of Western philosophy too.
Siri Hustvedt is an extremely well-educated person and her intellectual acumen is impressive. She grew up in Minnesota with a professor father and it shows. Her mother, Ester Vegan Hustvedt was a Norwegian born immigrant to the U.S. and her father, Lloyd Hustvedt, a Norwegian American. They met at the University of Oslo. Hustvedt’s Norwegian background and its literary influence show in her writing.
Siri Hustvedt (b. 1955) has also written six other novels, one book of poetry and five works of nonfiction including A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women. She is the author of many essays about art and the art world in general.
Hustvedt explains in the introduction to her collection of essays A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women:
“I love art, the humanities, and the sciences. I am a novelist and a feminist, I am also a passionate reader, whose views have been and are continually being altered and modified by the books and papers in many fields that are part of my everyday reading life”(xiv).
The Blazing World
The plot of the novel is that the main character, Harriet Burden, is a woman artist who feels overlooked because of her sex. After her husband (a well known New York art dealer) dies she decides to use several male artists as fronts for three of her own art projects. When she does this, the pieces are received very well, gaining attention and coverage, proving to her that the positive reception is due to her male gendered “mask.” She retains her anonymity, intending to reveal herself after the third charade, but that gets bungled by the male mask, Rune, denying his participation in the scheme once it is exhibited. He then proceeds to die by suicide or accidentally (it is unclear), and that event completely overtakes Burden’s plan.
In Notebook C, Burden confesses:
“ I, Harriet Burden, hereby confess that my diverse fantasies were driven:
- By a general desire for revenge against twits, dunderheads, and fools,
- By an ongoing, wrenching intellectual isolation that resulted in loneliness because I roamed in too many books that no one could talk to me about,
- By a growing sense that I had always been misunderstood and was madly begging to be seen, truly seen, but nothing I did made any difference”(35).
The subplot asks the question if Burden, pretending to be a man creates work different from what she created when she was creating under the gender of a woman. Did this switch in her own perspective factor into the differing responses? Did her conceiving and creating as a male actually cause her to create different art? What is truly at play behind gender bias and is it more than simply how we view genders we are perceiving? Does it also play into how our assigned and assumed genders cue us to behave or act in the world?
These are philosophical questions clearly not only of the character Burden but, once again, the author herself. This book is a trip and one well worth taking to shake up one’s mind and alter perceptions of the world, art, gender, fame, recognition, and the stories we tell ourselves.
Rescuing women artists and writers from obscurity
Some of the women artists and writers Hustvedt covers in The Blazing World:
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim, alias Anna O (1859-1936), women artists Alice Neel (1900-1984), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), Eva Hesse (1936-1970), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), and Lee Krasner (1908-1984).
Writing about her obsession with abstract artist Louise Bourgeois in the essay “My Louise Bourgeois,” Hustvedt reveals:
“Let me say this. My Louise Bourgeois has stirred up the contents of my own dungeon, the muddy, aromatic, sadistic, and tender underground of dreams and fantasies that are part of everyday life. But artists are cannibals. We consume other artists, and they become part of us—flesh and bone—only to be spewed out again in our own works. When mingled with Søren Kierkegaard, the seventeenth-century natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish, Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, Milton’s Satan and heaven knows who else, my chewed up and digested Louise Bourgeois returned in the artist character at the heart of my most recent novel, The Blazing World: Harriet Burden, a.k.a Harry”(WLM 30).
In the traumatic aftermath of her husband’s death, Harriet Burden moves to a large warehouse in Brooklyn, leaving her posh life in Manhattan where she silently suffered knowing that her deceased husband was a philanderer. While he was alive Burden felt her career was squelched by his fame. She became more widely recognized as his wife than an artist in her own right. Also she had to take care of their two children. She was quite a bit younger than him and she loved being a mother even if it did interrupt her career.
She cleverly captures three male artists to be her three aliases or “masks.” They are Anton Tish, Phineas Q. Eldridge and the last one, the one who would be her downfall and ruin, Rune. The first two she becomes quite good friends with and separates from each of them amicably after the big art exhibit bearing his name is completed. Even though the works receive great reviews, Burden remains unsatisfied.
After the gallery opening of the work she titled The Suffocation Rooms Phineas Q. Eldridge, her mask, reports:
“After bussing me in the taxi, Harry turned prickly, irritable, and sour. She had drunk too much, and I could feel self-pity mounting as she rolled off the names of women artists suppressed, dismissed, or forgotten. She jumped up from the sofa and stomped back and forth across the room. Artemisia Gentileschi, treated with contempt by posterity, her best work attributed to her father. Judith Leyster, admired in her day, then erased. Her work handed over to Frans Hals. Camille Claudel’s reputation swallowed whole by Rodin’s. Dora Maar’s big mistake: She screwed Picasso, a fact that had obliterated her brilliant Surrealist photographs. Fathers, teachers, and lovers suffocate women’s reputations”(132).
Because she is led into a trap with the third mask, satisfaction is never achieved.
The seething anger that can destroy us
Musing in a notebook about one of her collaborations, Burden writes:
“I am going to build a house-woman. She will have an inside and an outside, so that we can walk in and out of her. I am drawing her, drawing and thinking about her form. She must be large, and she must be a difficult woman, but she cannot be a natural horror or a fantasy creature with a vagina dentata. She cannot be a Picasso or a de Kooning monster or Madonna. No either/or for this woman. No, she must be true. She must have a head as important as her tail. And there will be characters inside that head, little men and women up to various pursuits. Let them write and sing and play instruments and dance and read very long speeches that put us all to sleep. Let her be my Lady Contemplation in honor or Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, that seventeenth-century monstrosity: female intellectual. Author of plays, romances, poems, letters, natural philosophy, and a utopian fiction, The Blazing World. I will call my woman The Blazing World after the Duchess” (207).
At the end of this same notebook entry we find these lines:
“I want to blaze and rumble and roar.
I want to hide and weep and hold on to my mother.
But so do we all”(209).
Harriet Burden is raging.
Many of us can relate to this rage, to this desire for revenge and vindication. And yet the rage in this book is not constructive, it does not lead Burden to a beyond, to liberation or transformation. Instead it destroys her.
I read this as a warning from Hustvedt to women in general: Don’t waste your time fighting the fight which is unwinnable. Live your life and enjoy it to the best of your ability, pursue what you wish to pursue and, hard as it may be, because it leaves you an outcast, resist needing the approval of the male gaze.
Readers and acclaim in posterity
In another level of the confusion between fiction/nonfiction/author/art, Hustvedt uses the title of one of Margaret Cavendish’s books as the title of her own as well as one of the pieces Burden thinks about creating in her novel The Blazing World. Why would one use the exact same title? I can’t really understand why except that when I put The Blazing World into the search engine, Cavendish comes up. Perhaps this is Hustvedt’s’ way of getting Cavendish the attention she always craved.
In the Introduction to Hustvedt’s The Blazing World the fictional editor writes:
“Despite the fact that Cavendish lived in the seventeenth century, she served Harriet Burden as an alter ego. During her lifetime, the Duchess of Newcastle published poetry, fiction, and natural philosophy. Although a few people defended and admired her work at the time—more notably her husband, William Cavendish—the duchess felt brutally constricted by her sex and repeatedly articulated the hope that she would find readers and acclaim in posterity”(6).
Is it enough that almost 350 years later another writer, surely not the first, but certainly a very important and well-known writer, Siri Hustvedt, does her part to make Margaret Cavendish’s work known? It certainly does not take the pain away from that lifetime as Margaret Cavendish, and perhaps only alleviates some of the pain Hustvedt herself has felt in being slighted in recognition because of her sex.
What else is one to do but fight the good fight all the while being careful not to be consumed by it.
Siri Hustvedt does just that. Siri Hustvedt is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2024
Hustvedt, Siri. The Blazing World. Simon and Schuster 2014
__________. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. Simon & Schuster. 2016.